Christie's 'Classic Art Week'

October 12 2015

Image of Christie's 'Classic Art Week'

Picture: via

I heard about this a while ago, but couldn't quite believe it - Christie's are cancelling their New York January Old Master sales, and moving them to April as part of a re-branded 'Classic Art Week'. Traditionally, the Old Master sales are bi-annual; New York in January and June, and London in December and July. The New York sales are usually stronger in January, and London's in July, and the wider market is pretty much geared up around those dates. But no more.

Here's Christie's press release, via Art Daily'

As a further step in its sales innovation strategy, Christie’s introduces a new themed week of sales, Classic Art Week which will take place at Rockefeller Center, New York in April 2016. This week of sales will include Old Master Paintings, Sculpture, Antiquities, and Christie’s signature Exceptional Sale of decorative arts.

A new curated sale entitled “Revolution” will be the centerpiece of this auction series, and will feature masterworks from the 18th to the 20th centuries, including paintings, drawings, prints, photography and sculpture, which will explore the radical social, political and artistic changes that defined this period of history.

“This classic series of sales and exhibitions will provide a wonderful contrast to our 20th Century art series which generated so much interest and electricity in our salerooms in May. The Classic Art Week will provide an opportunity for the world’s collectors to see the very best in each field as Rockefeller Center transforms itself into a museum of classical art,” noted Jussi Pylkkänen, Global President, Christie’s International.

“We have spoken to the collectors, art dealers and museum curators in these fields and so many are supportive of this new Classic Art Week concept and April provides the perfect moment in the auction calendar. The series promises to invigorate interest in these wonderful fields that are the DNA of the art market. We look forward to welcoming everyone to Rockefeller Center to celebrate the very best in Old Master Paintings, Antiquities, Sculpture and Decorative Art.”

Whoa. This is the first time I can recall that Christie's and Sotheby's will not have had their major sales in the same location in the same week. Traditionally, whatever the offering (from Contemporary to Old Masters) both auction houses have their sales at roughly the same time, and dealers and collectors will travel to London or New York to see them. It's convenient, and makes each bi-annual sale more of an event. I hope this move does not lead to a deterioration in the wider New York Old Master market.

So why change things? Could it be that Christie's felt there was too much Old Master (sorry, 'classic') art on sale at one time? Perhaps, but that logic doesn't seem to extend yet to London, and nor to other categories. Is January too winter-y for Old Master clients to go to New York, and might April be a more Spring-like time? Perhaps - after all, it can be arse-achingly cold in January in New York. But then actually winter in New York is part of the fun, and in any case doesn't an April sale risk coming up against the July sales in London: might people not wait, and see what better pictures are coming up a few months later?

Or - more worryingly still - is Christie's running up the white flag in its battle with Sotheby's in New York? For the last few January sales, Sotheby's has decisively won the contest, with higher sales figures and better offerings. I hope Christie's are not blaming the calendar for their apparent inability to compete. But maybe Christie's are hoping that by re-packaging their Old Master sales with more modern works, they'll be able to persuade consignors that they have better access to a wider pool of clients. 

What are we to make, then, of the re-branding of Old Masters to 'Classic Art'? It strikes me as a little defeatist, but then I'm an old stick-in-the-mud when it comes to these things. The National Gallery in London, in its most recent blockbuster exhibition for Late Rembrandt didn't refer to him as a 'Classic artist'. He was/is an 'Old Master'. It's a term everybody understands. Getting people to buy works by the likes of Rembrandt isn't going to be made easier just by taking the word 'old' out of the equation. Is it? Or are we concerned, these days, that 'Old Masters' is too gender-specific? Yikes.

Update - an art dealing reader writes:

Christie’s postponing their NY January OM sales is not a novelty as you write. It also happened in 2006, when they were shifted to April. At the time, some said it had to do with the Venetian Turner that fetched 35 million. [...]

 Anyway it a daft thing to do.

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